Photo by No 10 Flickr / Georgina Coupe

The Cameroons and Covid — what’s the connection?

The Cameroons were a curious political clique. They arrived on the political scene in the mid-2000s, typically tieless and with a charming youthfulness, harbouring a plan to “modernise” both their party and the country. They championed “compassionate Conservatism”, a useful rhetorical response to the perceived outdatedness of their party. In 2010, they entered government as the senior partner of a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition; then in 2015, they won the Conservatives’ first majority since 1992. 

Yesterday the cohort’s namesake and former prime minister, David Cameron, appeared before the official Covid inquiry looking rather less youthful and with his tie drawn tightly. The purpose of Cameron’s testimony was to assess the impact of his government’s action — or lack thereof — on Britain’s pandemic preparedness. 

The Cameroons’ dependence on their disarming frontman was a key feature of their tenure in No 10, ended prematurely by the PM’s Brexit gamble. At the time, commentators were certain that the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, actioned against the advice of No 10, would be Cameron’s enduring legacy. But then came along Covid-19 — a novel Coronavirus which has claimed the lives of at least 226,977 Britons. 

The result is a rare public outing for Cameron and some unlikely insight into the core tenets of the Cameroon regime. 

Indeed, the ex-PM is not the only representative of his government due in the inquiry docks. Over the coming days, a constellation of Cameroon movers and shakers will be questioned on their pandemic foresight. Former chancellor George Osborne, current chancellor Jeremy Hunt and former chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Oliver Letwin are all also set to give testimony in the coming days. 

And so any remaining inkling that the Covid inquiry will be a classic Whitehall whitewash is entirely dispelled. We see that Baroness Hallet is not merely concerned with the day-to-day decision-making of government from 2020-2022 — but on the structural and institutional avenues through which ministers passed on pandemic policy. This first set of hearings is part of the resilience and preparedness module of the inquiry; Hallet will therefore scrutinise: (1) the decisions taken specifically on pandemic preparedness, and (2) the austere economic policy championed by the Cameroons with its implications for NHS capacity. 

This first point formed the foundation of Cameron’s one-hour testimony. In this way, inquirer Kate Blackwell KC showed the former PM a note from a meeting of experts in March 2015 when he was still in office which said there was a “clear and present danger” of coronaviruses and other strains. “I’m afraid I don’t recall a specific conversation”, the former PM replied.

Still, Cameron was adamant that his government was very concerned about the threat of a pandemic. They tried hard to put the “right architecture in place”, he told the inquiry. Nonetheless, the Cameroons had made a grave “mistake” by focussing on pandemic flu not coronaviruses. 

What is for certain: Cameron’s penchant for preparedness and canny ability to sidestep a line of questioning has not — in his 7 long years separated from the political frontline — been lost. He stuck to two main lines in his testimony: he acknowledged that things were “missed” and that “mistakes” on preparedness were made — but maintained that his government’s austerity agenda, which some have blamed for crippling NHS capacity ahead of its worst ever crisis, was fundamentally correct. 

“Your health system is only as strong as your economy — one pays for the other”, he said. “The biggest thing was to get the British economy and the public finances in a state where they were capable of responding to the next crisis”, he continued. “There’s no resilience without economic resilience, without financial resilience, without fiscal resilience”, he added. 

It was classic Cameron speak.

In response, shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting lashed out at the former PM, retorting: “Over a decade in charge, the Conservatives failed to train the doctors and nurses the NHS needs, hollowed out the NHS ahead of the pandemic, and patients today are paying the price”.

The Cameroon apparatchiks

Cameron’s most trusted subordinates George Osborne and Oliver Letwin have now also had their say at the inquiry. Letwin, the self-styled “Mr Fix-it” for the Cameroon regime, blamed those pesky Liberal Democrats and the bustle of coalition for taking up much of his time — hours better spent on pandemic preparedness. 

George Osborne, in his written testimony, focussed typically on fiscal matters. In the statement read to Cameron on Monday, Osborne argued that he has no doubt their approach to finances following the financial crisis of 2008 “had a positive effect on the UK’s ability to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic.”

But of the notorious “Notting Hill set” it is Jeremy Hunt, health secretary from 2012 to 2018, who has proved the most enduring politically. “The last Cameroon”, he has held out for 13 years on the political frontline to earn his current post as chancellor. In his testimony, Cameron praised Hunt as a “very capable” health secretary and someone who was “always batting for the NHS”.

Hunt’s contemporary political fortunes are naturally hostage to his unlikely career trajectory. Sometime before his renaissance as a leading light of the Sunakian regime, Hunt told the British Medical Journal in 2021 that his decisions as health secretary had adversely affected the UK’s preparedness for the pandemic. As chair of the commons health committee through the pandemic, his role during the pandemic was as an activist grandee: past his prime but willing and able to make potent swipes at the government. Having been bested by Boris Johnson in the 2019 Conservative leadership contest, there was always a clear personal edge to Hunt’s criticism. 

In his witness statement read before Cameroon on Monday, Hunt said that he had “considerable concerns about the structural problems within NHS capacity and the workforce and funding”.

Why the Cameroon Covid connection matters

Ultimately, the Cameroons’ testimony underlines once more the central paradox of their political dynasty: that they enacted a programme of austere, radical right-wing reform — under the rhetorical guise of “compassionate Conservatism”. We see, in the full light of day, how Cameron’s disarming reasonableness and his rhetoric of “compassion” was matched by relentlessly right-wing policy initiatives. The “Big society” the Cameroons instituted is hence under careful scrutiny by the Covid inquiry.  

As far as the politics of this is concerned, Labour — as we see in Wes Streeting’s comments — will seize on all this to ram home their central message: the Conservatives record of failure is 13-years-long. The psychodramatic chaos of the Johnson-Sunak relationship absorbs the attention of Westminster — but the PM’s predecessor problem may in fact extend as far back as 2010.

One wonders, likewise, whether when it comes time for Boris Johnson’s time to give evidence, the former PM will now turn on his Cameroon predecessors and blame the hand he was dealt during the pandemic. The Covid inquiry, in taking their remit seriously and analysing the institutional backdrop to pandemic decision-making, may have gifted the greased piglet some wiggle room down the line.